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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

The Cantor and the Responsorial Psalm

by Gary Penkala

Part I: Historical Development

We have experienced in our time the reawakening of the role of cantor in community worship. The cantor's role is of extremely ancient origin, pre-dating the birth of Christ. With origins in the Jewish tradition, the cantor, or precentor (hazan) was also known under the title shaliah tzibbur, meaning "the delegate of the congregation." The function of the cantor, known in the most ancient Palestinian and Babylonian synagogues, was to aid in singing the psalms and other prayers of the service.

According to Donald Grout in his History of Western Music, "Among the Hebrews, psalms were sung in alternation between a soloist (cantor) and the congregation; one form of alternation, which later became important in Christian liturgy (was) responsorial psalmody," wherein the cantor sang the verses, the congregation replying with an unchanging refrain derived from a verse of the psalm or simply an alleluia.

Much of the Jewish tradition was employed by the early Christians in their worship. David Appleby in A History of Church Music writes, "Psalm singing in the early Christian churches was of three types: direct psalmody, the singing of a complete psalm without textual additions or modifications; responsorial psalmody, taken directly from the Jewish synagogue, in which the entire psalm is sung by a soloist (cantor), while a choir or congregation responds with a short affirmative exclamation such as 'Amen' or 'Alleluia'; antiphonal psalmody, thought to have been introduced by Ambrose, using two alternating half choruses."

In time this psalm between the readings became a highly stylized art-form, the singing of which was delegated to the cantor or choir. According to Stephen Redmond, SJ, in The Mass through Time, "The whole was also drastically shortened from a full psalm to one verse. Later still it became a duet during which the singers stood on the ambo or platform used chiefly for the reading of Scripture. They did not stand on the top level (that was reserved for the reading of the gospel) but on the steps (gradus), and the chant became known as the gradual."

The gradual developed for many centuries and produced many of the finest examples of Gregorian chant. The chant was restored to its original significance as a responsorial psalm by the Second Vatican Council. The role of cantor then, as delegate of the congregation, became more important as the gradual was taken from the choir and returned to the congregation.

See CNP's Psalm Index

 Back to Miscellaneous Index

Part II: The Responsorial Psalm Today

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